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"The Liberal party I know and love gives everyone a fair go, regardless of gender."

I write in response to an article published in Mamamia last week entitled “Pushy. Irrational. Emotional.  This is how the Liberal Party dismisses its women.”

In the article in which the author’s name was not disclosed, Ms Anonymous, from New South Wales, argues that “…although women make up nearly half of the Liberal Party, they aren’t running for parliament.  And when they do?  Statistics show it is generally for the marginal seats that much of the time, they lose.”

Perhaps the author missed the success at the 2013 Federal election of four new female MPs from NSW – Lucy Wicks, Fiona Scott, Karen McNamara and Ann Sudmalis.  Each contested marginal or notionally marginal seats, ran gutsy and determined campaigns, and won.

I, too, was elected in 2013 as the Member for Corangamite after contesting the most marginal seat in the country.

My election was aided, in no small part, by the Liberal Party’s reforms in Victoria which gives each local member of the party an equal say in who is chosen to run for parliament – in both the House of Representatives and Victoria’s Legislative Assembly.

That each person has an equal vote makes it extremely difficult for the more influential party members to lock up the numbers, so to speak.  This has empowered party members at the grassroots and reinvigorated the party organisation.  And, might I humbly say, the reforms which were introduced in 2009 have produced some very good members of parliament.

Former Governor-General Quentin Bryce once said: “One has to be careful not to see as negatives features in a woman that would be seen as strengths in a man.”

Contrast this to the furor which has erupted in the Labor Party over archaic preselection practices which place so much power in the hands of so few.

ALP national president, Jenny McAlister, has condemned Labor’s preselection system – which allows union bosses and factional leaders to select candidates such as Senator Joe Bullock – as “broken”.

And that it is.  After Senator Bullock’s denunciation of Labor as well as his own running mate in the West Australian Senate “by-election”, it is extraordinary that so many people in the Labor Party turned a blind eye to the merits of his preselection.

Now we see the ridiculous farce of the United Voice union reneging on its support for Senator Bullock, following his re-election to the Senate, and calling on him to resign.  In the Liberal Party, we proudly have a process which would never allow this to happen.  That’s because every person’s voice matters.

Also broken is the ALP’s “Emily’s List” requirement that 40 per cent of seats in parliament should be held by women.  In recent times, we have seen numerous examples of Labor’s faceless men flouting the rules and prevailing over competent female aspirants.

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For any potential political candidate, the preselection process is not an easy one.  Yet in the Liberal Party, particularly in Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and the ACT where plebiscites are the order of the day, I consider it to be remarkably fair.

In 2010, when I won pre-selection for the first time, I ran against five men.  I can honestly say that gender did not play out as an issue.  Each of us stood to be judged on our merits.  And party members made their choice, without fear or favour.

Of course, like many including Prime Minister Abbott, I would like to see more women enter politics and sit around the cabinet table.  Of the 226 members and senators in the current Australian Parliament, some 71 of them, or 31 per cent, are women.  Of the major parties, 26 of the women represent the Coalition, 38 are Labor MPs.  At the moment, not enough women from both sides of the political divide are running for public office.

I think it’s fair to say that across many industry sectors and professions, there is still more work to be done to ensure women receive equal opportunity and are treated equally in the workplace.

Ironically, sometimes women who reach great heights in their professional lives, particularly those in prominent leadership or senior management roles, also experience prejudice.  Our first female Governor General, Dame Quentin Bryce, makes the very good point that “One has to be careful not to see as negatives features in a woman that would be seen as strengths in a man.”

After failing to get over the line by the narrowest of margins in the 2010 Federal election, I was buoyed by the incredible support I received from Tony Abbott, then Opposition Leader, to “keep going”.  This same encouragement flowed from our then shadow ministry and senior party leaders, many of whom were men.

While we can always look to do things better, the Liberal Party of Australia I know and love is, I consider, inclusive and remarkably democratic.

Our policies speak for themselves about the importance the Liberal Party places on gender equality.

Sarah Henderson MP.

Our Paid Parental Leave Scheme, for example, will provide mothers with 26 weeks of paid parental leave at their actual wage. This policy is wonderful for women and good for our national productivity.

The Gorton Government oversaw the establishment of equal pay and the Fraser Government signed the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

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The Howard Government introduced a range of policies which were good for women.  These include the baby bonus, now known as the maternity payment; substantial increases in the rates of family benefits; the provision of extra childcare places; the introduction of the childcare tax rebate and the encouragement of flexible family-friendly work practices.

Tony Abbott, as Health Minister, was responsible for increased funding for screening programs for cervical cancer.  In his time as Minister for Employment and Workforce Relations, he amended the Sex Discrimination Act to recognise breastfeeding as a potential ground of unlawful dismissal in the workplace.

Women have achieved much in our party.  Enid Lyons became one of the first two women to be elected to the Australian Parliament and the first woman to sit in the House of Representatives. She went on to become the first woman to enter federal cabinet, in Robert Menzies’ Liberal Country Party government.

The Liberal Party’s Senator Margaret Reid is the first and only woman to have served as President of the Senate.  And now, we celebrate our first female Foreign Minister in Julie Bishop and the Liberal Party’s first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, who has brought a new sense of order and dignity to the parliament.

Tony Abbott has done positive things for women, Henderson writes.

Ms Anonymous may well have had her own negative experience which has coloured her view of the Liberal Party; but the party I know and love gives everyone a fair go, regardless of gender.

In fact, in my many years working in the media, in the law and now as a Federal MP, my experience in politics in this respect has been the most positive.

This is partly explained by the progress we’ve made as a nation in addressing equal opportunity in the workplace over the last thirty years.  But I also think it’s because the media is not inclined to turn the magnifying glass onto itself nearly often enough.

When I started work as a 17 year old cadet journalist in 1982, women in Melbourne’s Channel 7 newsroom were a rarity.  Some of the discriminatory conduct I witnessed in the media industry over many years, including in more recent times, would make your hair stand on end.

One day, I will tell that story.

Is the Liberal Party sexist? Do you think all political parties face issues of sexism?

Sarah Henderson is the Federal Member for Corangamite.

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